Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey

Matthew Murphy
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, currently at the Westside Theater, is a sweet, thoroughly engaging one-person show, and I say this as someone who is not particularly fond of one-person shows. Over a brisk 75 minutes, several characters--all depicted by Lecesne, who is also the playwright--discuss the events surrounding the disappearance of the title character, a flamboyant and highly independent 14-year-old boy who lives in a small town on the Jersey shore. It's no surprise that Leonard turns up dead, or that he was killed by a person with no patience for difference; if you're looking for a really tautly-written crime drama that will keep you on the edge of your seat before all the loose ends get tied up in the last five minutes, you're looking at the wrong show. Rather, the pleasures of Leonard Pelkey lie in its vivid characters, all of whom are played with enormous sensitivity and insight by Lecesne.

Performers who inhabit many roles during a single performance tend to broadcast their own feelings about the characters they portray. I've seen a number of very well-respected storytellers and monologists who, either consciously or unconsciously, adulate or demean their own characters, thereby informing the audience whom they dig and whom they think are total douchebags. Yet Lecesne's characters, all humans and some more flawed than others, are presented without judgment. Characters that could very easily slide into parody never do. Lecesne depicts the mob wife with the heart of gold, the fey British drama teacher, the heavily accented hairdresser and her sullen adolescent daughter with the same nuanced, respectful distance that he does the aged and regretful clockmaker, the hard-bitten detective who investigates the disappearance, and even Pelkey's killer. The show benefits enormously from its creator's refusal to condescend to his characters or, by extension, to his audience.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey reminds us that for all the new freedoms we celebrate in this country, we still have a very long way to go when it comes to the embrace--or even understanding--of difference. This is an important message, but not one that's forced, here. This is a gentle, moving show, written and performed by one of the absolute brightest and most careful storytellers I've seen.    

Monday, July 27, 2015


Photo: Carol Rosegg
There really is no such thing as a bad night at the Delacorte Theater, the venue nestled inside Central Park where The Public Theater has offered free Shakespeare (and Sondheim, and Chekhov, and Brecht, etc) for over 50 years. But this past Saturday was a night to beat the band. The weather was ideal: neither too warm nor too cold, with just enough breeze to stave off sweaty discomfort. The sun was still high at the beginning of the performance, but it gradually faded into a perfect rouge sunset, before settling into a clear, dark night. There was minimal air traffic going on in the sky above the stage. The audience was appreciative and exhibited good theatrical manners -- not always a given in this particular theater, where eating and drinking is not only allowed but encouraged, and the staff seems to let people wander in and out as they please. Yes, everything about Saturday night at Shakespeare in the Park was perfect ... except the production.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Pound, the fabulous Marga Gomez's satirical exploration of the depiction of lesbians in old movies, has only one more performance (Dixon Place, on July 25, 2015). If you have any interest in Marga Gomez, lesbians, old movies, and/or laughing your butt off, run down there.

Pound (smoothly directed by David Schweizer) focuses specifically on The Children's Hour, The Killing of Sister George, The Fox, Bound, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls. It also makes quick visits to The Hunger, Orange Is the New Black, The Kids Are Alright, and Sphere, a movie in which Gomez and Queen Latifah had small parts, back in the day. Much of Gomez's commentary is well-trod ground. However, via her unique slant, intelligence, wit, comic chops, and likability, her insights morph into hysterically funny and fresh material that is both political and very personal.

Pound goes off the rails a bit when Gomez is sucked (don't ask) into a portal leading to a cloud populated by fictional lesbians. It becomes a bit difficult to keep track of the flashbacks and flashforwards, and it's not always 100% clear who's speaking. The writing in this section is also less incisive and pushes a little too hard for laughs. It's still funny; it's just not at the high level of the rest of the show.

Overall, however, Pound is a great way to spend 75 minutes.

I hope that some day Gomez extends her satire to the present day. One line on Orange Is the New Black is not enough, funny as it is. And it would be wonderful to hear her take on Blue Is the Warmest Color, Reaching for the Moon, Kissing Jessica Stein, Kalinda in The Good Wife, the treatment of the lesbian couple in Last Tango in Halifax, Cosima on Orphan Black, The Fosters, Kima on The Wire, Callie and Arizona on Grey's Anatomy, and the women on the dreadful social event that was The L Word. That the list is long might suggest that satirizing fictional lesbians is no longer necessary, but of course there's still plenty to say. And I'd love to hear Gomez say it!

(press ticket; 2nd row)

Thursday, July 23, 2015


At one point in Yussef El Guindi's brilliantly surprising play Threesome, Leila (Alia Attallah), author of a book on sexual and racial politics, says to the man about to photograph her for the book cover:
I used to think men were a little like onions. Layered creatures who often make you cry, just because of who they are. But recently I have come to think of men as much less complex vegetables. Like carrots.
Quinn Franzen, Alia Attallah,
Karan Oberoi
Photo: Hunter Canning
Interestingly enough, Threesome is the opposite. In the beginning, it seems very much like a basic sex comedy--a carrot. Leila and Rashid (Karan Oberoi) are partnered, and they have invited Doug (Quinn Franzen) to have sex with them. Well, Leila has invited him, and Rashid has grudgingly acquiesced, partially as penance for a flirtation with another woman. Leila and Rashid wait in the bedroom, dressed, and Doug enters fully nude, telling a gross story about stomach problems. At this point, Threesome seems like a version--a smart and superior version--of the one-dimensional Bruce Norris play, The Qualms. It's very funny.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Judith & Vinegar Tom

Well-done political theatre can be invigorating, inspiring, and infuriating in the best way. Not-so-well-done political theatre, however, can be pretty tedious, as shown by the pair of one acts now at PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Company).

Nesba Crenshaw, Tara Giordano
in Vinegar Tom
Photo: Stan Barouh
Howard Barker's three-hander Judith presents the night that Judith, "a widow of Israel," meets with Holofernes, "a General of Assyria" and eventually cuts off his head. But first they talk, a lot: the cost of killing to both victim and murderer; the strange cravings of sex; the complex reality of power. Under the conversation throbs (or should throb) desire, not only for sex per se, but to remember how to feel.

In the PTP production, words win and ideas and desire lose, due to the directing (Richard Romagnoli), casting, and acting. The presentation is monochromatic, from the dark costuming to the deadpan pontificating. The sexual tension that could make the thing work is nowhere to be found. (Also, just to pick a nit, if you're carrying someone's head, it's heavy. It has heft. In Judith, it's carried like the rolled-up sheet it obviously is.)

Vinegar Tom, by Caryl Churchill, is more successful, but still a disappointment. Reminiscent of The Crucible (could any play about witches not be?), Vinegar Tom makes explicit everything that Arthur Miller left as subtext--and then some. Much of its honesty is wonderful: these women are sexual and strong and real. Their vivid characters provide a stark contrast to the restrictions that bind them. In the 18th century, they control little but their own souls, and even those seem up for grabs.

Nominations for the 11th Annual New York Innovative Theatre Awards

I believe this is the entire list.


And If You Lose Your Way, or A Food Odyssey, Lauren Rayner Produtions
Maha Chehlaoui, Nick Choksi, Damon Daunno, Rachel Rusch, Josh Sauerman, Terrell Donnell Sledge,Leah Walsh

The Believers, The Storm Theatre
Christopher Bellant, Laura Bozzone, Joe Danbusky, Ted McGuinness, Patrick Melville, Taylor Anthony Miller

Much Ado About Nothing, Smith Street Stage, Inc.
Olivia Caputo, Michael Vincent Carrera, Mary Cavett, John Patrick Doherty, Austin Durant, Maxwell Eddy, Patrick Harvey, Alexandra Henrikson, Jonathan Hopkins, David Pegram, Lauren Pennline,Georgina Richardson, Sam Rosenberg, Will Sarratt, Kim Taff, Sophia Tupy, Corey Whelihan
Run For Your Wife, The Gallery Players
Joseph Cassese, Michael Hardart, Emily Hooper, Graciany Miranda, Joshua Nicholson, Timothy Park,Maria Silverman, James Swanson
Short Life of Trouble, Wandering Bark Theatre Company
John C. Egan, Gregory Isaac, Sheila Joon, Suzy Kohane, Michael Markham, Joseph Mitchell Parks,Valerie Redd, Brendan Spieth, Andy Talen

Topography, Broken Box Mime Theater
Becky Baumwoll, Dinah Berkeley, GĂ©raldine Dulex, David Jenkins, Tasha Milkman, Marissa Molnar,Joel Perez, Leah Wagner, Joshua Wynter, Matt Zambrano

Friday, July 17, 2015


Kyle Froman
Preludes, which has been extended through early August at the absolutely lovely Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center, is a dense and chewy musical that will not thrill everyone who sees it, but will certainly intrigue and challenge those with patience and an affection for postmodernism. An endlessly layered, circuitous, diffuse piece, Preludes is more intellectually challenging than it is warm and fuzzy. Riveting in some segments, quietly mesmerizing in others, and uncomfortably edgy in still others, Preludes comes off less as a straightforward musical than as an extended waking dream. This makes sense, since the show takes place in the hypnotized mind of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Fish in the Dark

Photo: Joan Marcus

Larry David may have left his hit play Fish in the Dark, but make no mistake: he's still up on that stage. And I'm not just referring to the fact that his replacement is his one-time television alter ego, Jason Alexander -- although that's certainly part of it. The role Alexander now inhabits -- Norman Drexel, a nebbishy, middle-aged Jewish man -- is little more than a David stand-in. But so is his wife, Brenda (the odd Glenne Headly) and his mother, Gloria (the always reliable Jayne Houdyshell). Norman's brother (Ben Shenkman, always a welcome presence) is supposed to be younger, richer, cooler -- nope. He's Larry David. Norman's maid, Fabiana (Rosie Perez, who barely acts), who harbors a secret you can smell a mile away: Larry. David. Even Norman's father, who speaks four lines before dying (a waste, since the fine Jerry Adler has the role), is Larry Fucking David.

But I guess that's what people paid upwards of $500 a pop for when the man himself was headlining. Full disclosure: I loathed Curb Your Enthusiam, David's screed of an HBO series that passed reprehensible behavior off as comedy for far too many years. And a lot of that "humor" inhabits this play, although I'd be lying if I said there weren't a few legitimate laughs. But the play itself is thinner than a dime, and the "twists" are about as expected as Kramer sliding uninvited through Jerry's apartment door.

I will say, though, that Alexander impressed me. A Tony winner for Jerome Robbins' Broadway, this replacement gig marks his first Broadway appearance in twenty-five years. (He's been active in West Coast theater, including several years as artistic director of the now-defunct Reprise series). Rarely have I seen an actor so confident in his ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. It's even more impressive considering that Norman is a pretty terrible role, written in such a way that a non-actor (which David firmly is) could succeed. I'm glad I saw him. He made me laugh. But if I'd paid more than rush prices, I would've felt somewhat cheated.

[$35 rush ticket, the most full-view box seat I've ever had]

Friday, July 10, 2015

Happy Days

In the first act of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, Winnie is buried up to her waist in a large mound of barren earth. In the second act, she is buried up to her neck. The mound of earth can be seen as life, or aging, or even just a mound of earth. No matter the interpretation, Winnie tries to make the best of it, carrying out her (limited) rituals, sharing her thoughts with a man we barely see whom she has clearly know for years (her husband? lover?), and being ever grateful when a day turns out to have a good moment or two. "Oh, this is a happy day," she says. She adds, "This will have been another happy day," as though to file it for the future when it will be a precious memory.

Brooke Adams
Photo: Joan Marcus
In the production currently at The Flea, directed by Andrei Belgrader and starring Brooke Adams and (her husband) Tony Shalhoub, Winnie chirps along, accentuating the positive and barely listening to her own words. Adams' performance is flat, with a largely monotonal presentation. She recites words rather than inhabiting them. (Full disclosure: the night I saw Happy Days, the audience gave Adams a standing ovation, so mine is clearly a minority opinion.)


The production as a whole doesn't listen to Beckett's words or else fails to examine the anguish behind them. It is a coarsened version of Happy Days, complete with masturbation and flying snot. Willie's reappearance at the end of act two is treated as slapstick rather than desperation. These decisions, while lessening the impact of the play, can be justified based on the text. Less justifiable is the moment when Winnie signals the audience to clap to try to entice Willie to sing. If Winnie is aware of the audience, than her isolation is considerably less isolated.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Weir

Photo: Carol Rosegg
Irish theater values the act of storytelling as much as -- if not more than -- the story itself. The danger each playwright faces is that taken too far, this approach can feel like fetishization. Unfortunately, that's my impression of Conor McPherson's 1997 drama The Weir, which the Irish Repertory Theatre is reviving at its current digs in Union Square (the company previously presented this play -- with several of the same cast members -- two years ago). The play is little more than storytelling: in a remote Irish pub, the locals belt Jameson and Harp and indulge in spinning supernatural yarns they claim as true. McPherson is fascinated by the supernatural -- his plays The Seafarer and Shining City address the spirit world more directly -- and The Weir is a humanist attempt at a ghost story. It's also neither particularly poetic nor convincingly chilling. The actors give mostly fine performances, although more than a few line readings felt oddly tentative, and Amanda Quaid -- the lone woman, who shares the most disturbing story -- seemed young for her role. However, although only ninety-five minutes, Ciaran O'Reilly's production feels like a night where you stayed at the pub a few drinks past your limit.

[4th row, discounted ticket]